“Do what you love – it’s a built-in reward,” advises Ilona Thompson, editor of PalateXposure, a destination website for oenophiles. And if you’re a vintner or winemaker, all the better, she points out, because you should not be doing it for the money.
“The standing joke in the wine business is that it takes a big investment to make a little revenue,” she laughs. “Being around this industry for 20 years, I’ve heard many versions of that joke. The point is, you can’t be in it for dollars and cents.”
Ilona began her wine career after tasting a “very powerful, voluminous, larger-than-life wine – my gateway drug,” she chuckles. “As a consequence of this experience, which happened to be a California Cabernet, I began seeking out a lot of wines with similar character.”
Eventually, she created a partnership where she sold new-world wines. Of course, she tasted what she marketed, and took copious tasting notes that she emailed to her customers and prospects.
“This was the pre-blogosphere days, and my clients would constantly make comments like, ‘Oh, you write just like (wine critic) Robert Parker,’ which was very flattering, but I hardly believed them,” she admits. In the process, however, she discovered she loved writing about wine as much as selling, and of course, consuming it. So today she practices what she preaches by combining her passions.
If your passion is winemaking, don’t pursue it with a “hobby mentality,” she advises. “It’s a massive investment in time and money. Being passionate does not mean that you have to set aside shrewd business judgment.”
Here’s more advice from Ilona for aspiring vintners:
- Be inclusive.
“ I am consumer myself first and foremost; there are so many of us, industry types, that profess to take the mystery out of wine,” Ilona says, “but what it feels like, being around the trade for many years, is that we’re talking to each other. The consumers are somewhere off in left field and confused.”She points out how millennials especially are looking to get engaged.“They are clearly after something more experiential and interactive,” she explains.
- Avoid self-indulgence.
“Don’t personalize your label too much with something like an image from your backyard or your favorite pet,” she advises. “I understand your sentiment, but you must be relatable. If I haven’t met your pet, I’m not sure that I would attach to the message.”“Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer,” she continues. “That’s my most important piece of advice and, conversely, a pet peeve, because I root for small businesses. I want to see them succeed, and they really need to be acutely aware that first impressions count and you only have a split second to make it.”
- Create value.
Wine branding is the same as branding any other product, notes Ilona.“It requires the proper framing and messaging,” she says. “There’s great opportunity in creating an attachment via an intangible, I call it the “feel-good factor.” Make your customer feel special, included, taken care of, and they’re yours. Ask yourself, ‘If I met me as a brand, what would I look like, what is my mission and why should I care about it?’”
- Keep it simple.
“Stay simple, concise, focused, consistent and on message,” Ilona recommends. “There’s a great temptation to be influenced by successful brands and labels. I would block it all out. Develop your own identity and stick to it.”
But above all, concludes Ilona, never forget that wine is a conduit to conviviality, camaraderie and sharing.
“It’s about positive feelings,” she says. “We joke in the business that we’re not saving lives. That’s true. But we are enhancing them, and keeping that in mind is really important. Know that your mission is to elevate the human experience, including your own. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship and there’s a lot of value in that.”
Want to see Ilona’s advice put into action? Find out how the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess engages her customers, and get some more great marketing advice, too.